Kickin’ it with the knicks – Young Dancer® – New York Knicks dance team member Petra Pope teaches dance to young New Yorkers – Brief Article
WHAT CAN DANCE TRAINING DO FOR A kid? A lot, if you ask Petra Pope, the director of the Knicks City Dancers, the dance team of the NBA’s New York Knicks. (The group performs hip-hop and jazz choreography during the quarter breaks and time-outs at Knicks basketball games.) Discipline and confidence are the kinds of skills that come first on her list (and not, say, perfect pirouettes and split leaps). She’s got the big picture in mind.
You might think that Pope danced a lot when she was a child, but she didn’t. In fact, since her father was in the army, she lived on military bases and moved around a lot, so she didn’t have very many opportunities to get involved in organized after-school activities like dance.
That’s part of what made her decide, after accompanying the Knicks City Dancers on an outreach visit to a New York City public school, that she wanted to offer a more in-depth, after-school dance experience to young New Yorkers.
“We were visiting the schools monthly or every three months, and I didn’t think that was enough. I wanted to have the kids really learn something,” Pope says. “I wanted to give them something that would encourage self-confidence and leadership.”
So, last fall, Pope (who is also the Director of Entertainment Marketing at Madison Square Garden, the Knicks’s home arena) made her vision a reality. Starting in October, the Knicks City Dancers traveled every Wednesday afternoon to schools in the Bronx (the northeastern part of New York City), where they taught dance skills and choreography, as well as a bit about health and nutrition. The classes were an hour and a half long and involved students aged 6 to 14.
The program was sponsored by Madison Square Garden’s Cheering For Children Foundation (which supports a variety of after-school programs) and Bronx TASC (The After School Corporation). Three schools and 110 students participated in the dance training, which lasted six months and ended with a recital at Madison Square Garden.
At the recital, the children performed eleven short dances to a packed audience of family and friends. Most of the numbers were set to music by pop and rap artists that the kids chose, like Shaggy, Usher, Jay-Z, and P. Diddy. There were also two Broadway-inspired pieces (with music from Grease and The Wiz), which the Knicks City Dancers chose.
There were some elaborate costumes, like the Cowardly Lions, Tin Men, Scarecrows, and Dorothies that danced to The Wiz, and the poodle-skirted girls and denim-clad boys (complete with slicked-back hair) from Grease. There was even some singing, to Whitney Houston’s Greatest Love of All.
The dance numbers had the fast-paced, high-energy, jazz-and-hip-hop style that dance teams are known for. Each of the children learned as many as four pieces, and they also kept themselves organized and focused for the many group entrances, exits, and costume changes. It was no small feat, and it was clear that the dancers felt good about meeting the challenge. At the end of the performance, there was an awards ceremony in which each child was presented with a gold medal, and then the whole group danced into the audience with noisemakers and confetti.
If anything could be told from the happy faces and excited conversations after the confetti had settled, the experience will be lasting for the students and their families. Melinda Garcia, a 10-year-old participant, says she learned the secret of performing in front of an audience.
“I learned to just get up on the stage and have faith in myself that I could do it without being nervous. Being nervous makes you mess up–then you stay frozen on the stage. You just have to have fun with it–that’s the only way,” Garcia says, adding that her Knicks City Dancer teachers helped give her the confidence she needed. “Erica and Tia helped us believe that we could really dance. They always told us, `You can do this, guys,’ and that’s what helped us do it.”
The students also contributed to the choreography. They each came up with eight counts that were worked into the dance numbers. “First, we taught them how to count [music], so they knew what an eight-count even was,” Pope says. “Then, instead of limiting their creativity, we told them to come up with eight moves, a count of eight, and to use their creativity, but to make sure it worked with the music.”
Shannon Haynes-Rembert, another 10-year-old dancer, explains how the choreography was drawn from her (and her friends’) experiences. “We took steps we knew from parties and other special events and occasions and put them all together,” she says. “It was fun. I liked dancing with other people, being surrounded by other people my age–it couldn’t be better than that.”
One skill that Pope was especially interested in encouraging was leadership. So some children served as team leaders, responsible for organizing a group of their peers and helping them practice the choreography. Maren Halushka, one of the Knicks City Dancers who taught the children, explains how the team leaders were chosen. “The people we chose weren’t the ones who were already innately outgoing or could take on the responsibility easily,” Halushka says. “We chose kids who we thought were a little more shy and had the potential to grow further.”
Pope describes one girl who really grew into her team-leader role. She was quiet and withdrawn and never saw herself as a dancer, but she could remember choreography well, and by helping her peers learn, she earned their respect. “She started to speak out. Instead of being the quiet one, she started to take charge,” Pope says. “She really embraced the position.”
Pope hopes that the program will grow into more schools this fall and in future years, so that more of the city’s kids can experience the rewards of dance and get the message that “they can do anything they put their minds to.” Who knows? Maybe some of the students who take part in the after school program will end up auditioning for the Knicks City Kids, the dance team for 7-14 year olds, that performs at Knicks home games. Pope encourages anyone who is interested to audition. As she told the children in her speech before the recital: “Dream, believe, achieve!”
Andrea Menotti is a New York City-based dance writer whose work has appeared in The Village Voice and Dance Magazine.
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